The 1970s Black Utopian City That Became a Modern Ghost Town

Former civil rights lawyer-activist Floyd McKissick, right, talks to grade foreman A.T. Ayscue, in the empty fields where the future "Soul City" will be built in Warren County, N.C., June 20, 1974.

Former civil rights lawyer-activist Floyd McKissick, right, talks to grade foreman A.T. Ayscue, in the empty fields where the future "Soul City" will be built in Warren County, N.C., June 20, 1974. AP Photo/Harold Valentine

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

What the demise of an experimental Black town reveals about the struggle for racial equality today.

Visit soul city, north Carolina, today, and you won’t find much: an abandoned health-care clinic stripped by vandals; a pool and recreation center with a no trespassing sign; a 1970s subdivision with streets that are cracked and crumbling; and an industrial plant that has been converted into a prison. If not for the concrete monolith with the words soul city cast in red iron, you might not know this was supposed to be a city at all.

But that’s what the civil-rights leader Floyd McKissick hoped to create when he arrived here in 1969 with dreams of transforming an old slave plantation into a new city an hour north of Raleigh. The city would be dedicated to Black economic empowerment, McKissick envisioned, bringing money and opportunity to an area left behind by the modern economy and reversing the exodus of Black people to the northern slums. He projected that by the year 2000, it would boast 24,000 jobs and a population of 50,000.

Soul City never came close to those projections. When development stopped 10 years later, there were just 135 jobs and 124 full-time residents. In the four decades since, Soul City has quietly faded into oblivion, becoming a modern-day ghost town. Most people, even in North Carolina, have never heard of it.

That’s unfortunate. The history of Soul City is worth remembering as the country continues to grapple with the legacy of segregation and slavery. McKissick’s unrealized dream offers a window into the struggle for racial equality and the many forces—social, political, and economic—that continue to stand in the way.

A lawyer by profession, McKissick rose to prominence as the head of the Congress of Racial Equality, one of the foremost civil-rights groups of the 1960s. He was a fiery speaker and a visionary leader, but he had neither the experience nor the resources needed to build a city. And the site he chose was an unlikely location for an urban utopia: 5,000 acres of farmland in one of the poorest parts of the state, with no water or sewer systems, no paved roads, and no electrical grid. It also lay smack in the middle of what one roadside billboard boldly proclaimed “Klan Country.”

Perhaps the biggest obstacle was the idea itself. Although Soul City was meant to be integrated, McKissick made clear that his main goal was to help Black people, especially the poor and the unemployed. For that reason—and because of its name—Soul City was quickly branded an experiment in Black nationalism, a sort of domestic Liberia. This played well in certain circles, but to many who had fought for integration, or at least come to accept it, Soul City seemed like a step backward. As one southern newspaper put it, “How terribly tragic it would be should all civil rights roads cut in the past twenty years lead to Soul City—a Camelot built on racism.”

In reality, McKissick’s dream was about economic equality, not separatism. It is true that he had emerged as a spokesperson for Black Power and that his rhetoric was often inflammatory. “If white America does not respond to peaceful protest,” he wrote in his book Three-Fifths of a Man, “Black People will be forced to work for their liberation through violent revolution.” But he had also spent his entire life challenging racial barriers. He integrated the University of North Carolina Law School in 1951. His children desegregated Durham public schools in 1958. And he led nonviolent protests against segregated buses, lunch counters, dime stores, ice-cream parlors, swimming pools, bathrooms, and water fountains for two decades.

Over the years, however, McKissick became frustrated by the slow pace of change. Like many Black leaders, he realized that marches and demonstrations, lawsuits and legislation, could achieve only so much. For Black people to be truly free, they needed power—economic power. “If a Black man has no bread in his pocket, the solution to his problem is not integration,” McKissick liked to say. “It’s to go get some bread.” That’s why, although McKissick had no desire to exclude white people, his dream was to build a city where Black Americans would call the shots, owning banks and businesses, running the police department and the school system, directing health care and social services.

[Read: Has America given up on the dream of racial integration?]

In the summer of 1972, after the Nixon administration awarded Soul City a $14 million loan guarantee (about $87 million today) to prepare the land for development, that dream appeared within reach. The loan was part of a program financing 13 new communities across the country, including a futuristic high-rise complex near downtown Minneapolis and an eco-friendly exurb of Houston. But Soul City was the only project in a rural area and the only one led by a Black developer. And federal support did not come cheaply. McKissick changed his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican and endorsed Richard Nixon’s 1972 reelection campaign because he thought it was necessary to guarantee government support.

The alliance was bizarre: Nixon, the “law and order” president whose “southern strategy” exploited racism to win white votes, and McKissick, the militant Black leader who was under surveillance by the FBI. Conservatives questioned Nixon’s judgment, while Black leaders accused McKissick of selling out. But like most political unions, it offered mutual benefits. For Nixon, backing Soul City was a chance to improve his image among Black voters without risking white support. Instead of embracing civil rights and welfare, he portrayed Soul City as a capitalistic solution to the problems of race and poverty. McKissick, meanwhile, desperately needed federal funds to get Soul City off the ground. Although he had secured private loans to purchase the land, investors were not lining up to bankroll a speculative new town. If becoming a Republican meant that he could get the money he needed, he was prepared to take whatever heat came his way.

The loan guarantee gave Soul City a jolt of momentum. Major corporations such as General Motors signaled an interest in building factories in the town, the governor of North Carolina offered financial support, and the national press weighed in enthusiastically. An editorial in The Washington Post praised Soul City as “the most vital experiment yet in this country’s halting struggle against the cancer of hectic urbanization,” and The New York Times called it “a sane and practical as well as imaginative concept.”

Within a few years, Soul City was a bustling development, with a staff of 70 and a population just under a hundred. Workers cleared the land, paved roads, and opened a health-care center, while construction began on a regional water system and the first industrial plant. Even McKissick’s skeptics began to come around, and one local official declared Soul City the best thing to happen to the area “in the last hundred years.”

So what happened? How did a project that once held such promise fall so depressingly short of its goals?

Like many utopian projects, Soul City was in part a victim of its own ambition. Attempting to build a community out of nothing but the red clay of the Carolina Piedmont was a massive undertaking that would have daunted the most experienced and well-financed white developer. For a Black man without deep pockets or corporate backing, battling the economic downturns of the 1970s, it was a highly improbable venture.

It wasn’t impossible, though, as evidenced by the fact that other new cities of the period did survive—cities such as The Woodlands, Texas; Columbia, Maryland; and Reston, Virginia. These cities faced many of the same challenges as Soul City, with one primary exception: They were built by white developers, financed by white corporations, and populated largely by white people.

What doomed Soul City was not just the size of its ambition but, at least in part, its color. Like nearly every other effort to improve the lives of Black people, it was subjected to a level of scrutiny, second-guessing, and outright hostility that other ventures rarely encounter. The race-baiting politician Jesse Helms, elected to the Senate from North Carolina in 1972, repeatedly attacked the project as a boondoggle and a waste of taxpayer money. A series of articles in the Raleigh News & Observer falsely accused McKissick of fraud and corruption. And a congressional audit of the development stalled progress for nine months, only to clear Soul City of the charges leveled against it.

[Listen: Democracy outlived my mother, but it’s at risk]

This is not to suggest that bigotry alone doomed Soul City. Many white Americans who rejected Soul City—such as Claude Sitton, the legendary civil-rights reporter for The New York Times who had become editor of the News & Observer—were not overtly racist; they were integrationists who thought Soul City was the wrong path to racial equality. Yet their opposition denied Black Americans the one thing they desired most: self-determination. As one Black preacher presciently observed in 1973, “It’s white folk, not black folk, who are going to decide whether Soul City will be a reality.”

The federal government deserves its share of the blame too. After encouraging Soul City’s development, it failed to offer needed resources and support, leading to costly delays and missed opportunities. Wary of public scrutiny and cowed by political opposition, it imposed conditions on Soul City that were not imposed on other new towns, insisting on industrial commitments before releasing the loan guarantee and then preventing McKissick from using that loan to build houses and commercial buildings. And when the scrutiny and opposition intensified, the government lacked the conviction to stand by McKissick, pulling the plug on the project in 1979.

[Read: The battle for North Carolina]

The self-defeating pride of McKissick should not be overlooked, either. Determined that Soul City would be a monument to Black achievement, he sometimes undermined his assurances that it would be integrated, telling one reporter that he wanted to “live with my people.” And although McKissick was generally a pragmatist—as demonstrated by his alliance with Nixon—he was unwilling to compromise on the one aspect of the plan that many white businesses and prospective residents objected to: the town’s name, which centered and celebrated Black culture. Viewing that opposition as racist—which it often was—McKissick declared, “If I change the name, I will have lived my life for nothing.”

When the federal government foreclosed on Soul City, the people who had bought houses there were left holding the bag. With no industry and no source of revenue, the infrastructure and facilities that had been built slowly decayed. Although more than a hundred people remained—including McKissick, who died in 1991—the town itself was wiped off the map, reverting to a private homeowners’ association.

Yet the story of Soul City is more relevant than ever. In the half century since McKissick conceived of Soul City, the financial gap between Black and white households has hardly budged. The Black unemployment rate is nearly double the white rate, and the median net worth of Black Americans is one-tenth that of white Americans.

[Read: American wealth is broken]

More important, Black people are still seeking the self-determination that McKissick hoped Soul City would provide in 1969. When protests erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, Black residents were not just lamenting the death of Michael Brown, the young man shot by a police officer. Although that incident triggered the unrest, the frustration and bitterness had been building for decades, as the percentage of Black residents increased but white residents retained control of all aspects of the city government. By 2014, Ferguson’s population was 67 percent Black and 30 percent white. Yet its government was staffed almost entirely by white people, including the mayor’s office, the school board, and the police department, which had only three Black officers out of a force of 53. What Black residents in Ferguson were demanding then—and what Black residents in Baltimore, Charlotte, Minneapolis, and so many other cities are demanding today—is the same thing that McKissick was seeking five decades earlier: respect, dignity, and control over their own destiny.

No quick or easy solution exists for achieving these objectives. But the story of Soul City points in some obvious directions. It highlights the need for greater investment in Black communities and Black-owned businesses so that entrepreneurs are not perpetually dependent on white institutions for support, like McKissick was. It shows the value of diversity in business and media as an antidote to the kinds of stereotypes and misperceptions Soul City faced. It underscores the importance of protecting voting rights so that elected officials such as Helms can be held accountable for sowing bigotry and hate.

Perhaps most crucial, the story of Soul City serves as a reminder that racial equality cannot be achieved without letting Black people lead the way. That does not mean accepting an idea or proposal simply because it comes from Black leaders; there is often disagreement within the Black community itself about the best path forward. But white Americans must be willing to take seriously what Black people—and all people of color—are saying and to have some humility about their own wisdom.

Had white critics of Soul City heeded that lesson, McKissick’s dream might have turned out very differently.

This article is adapted from Healy’s recent book Soul City: Race, Equality, and and the Lost Dream of an American Utopia.

Thomas Healy is a professor at Seton Hall Law School and the author of Soul City: Race, Equality, and and the Lost Dream of an American Utopia.

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